A group of business leaders is working to buy a 35-acre parcel nine minutes from downtown Santa Barbara to house the homeless and mentally ill.
Property owner Richard Berti has put down $450,000 toward an effort to buy the former St. Mary’s Seminary site at 1964 Las Canoas Road. Berti wired the money on Wednesday, sending the property into a 45-day escrow. Now, Berti, Jason Jaeger, principal of Jaeger Partners, and other business and community leaders will look to raise the rest of the money to buy the site for $14.2 million.
“This is a great opportunity for the community to get together to address mental illness,” Jaeger said. “We are going to have the right people there to address homelessness in Santa Barbara.”
The site comes with a commercial kitchen, meeting rooms, a cafeteria, a gym, basketball courts, and room for between 120 and 200 beds, as well as living quarters for the people who work there.
The property was previously a seminary, student retreat destination, and religious training center. About five years ago, the owners considered transforming it into a substance abuse treatment center. Some neighbors at the time criticized the idea at a city planning commission meeting.
Berti and Jaeger are now leading a new effort. Jaeger is the new president of the Santa Barbara Leadership Team, the organization founded by the late Hal Conklin. The idea is to raise the money from city, county and state sources for the remaining amount and develop a program that helps get people off the streets and into a site with supportive services.
“They can’t be put in apartment buildings, little hotels or little houses; there’s nothing that can be done for them there,” Berti said. “There has to be programs on site to occupy their time and give them something to do.”
Berti said he knows that government doesn’t typically work fast in terms of land acquisition, so he wanted to tie the property quickly so no one would beat him to the punch. If the deal does not go through, he will get his money back.
“I am just frustrated and I thought I would try,” Berti said. “If you think about something, and do nothing, you lose. If you think about something and you do it, you win.”
Regardless of whether the community buys into the project or can raise enough money, Berti said he is making his best effort to help the homeless. He’s a prominent downtown property owner who has long complained about the homeless and the city’s failure to solve the problem downtown.
“I am just making it possible for all the city and county and state people to step up,” Berti said. “If something happens, I will be proud.”
He has support from Gordon Auchincloss, a retired chief assistant district attorney, and a volunteer.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Auchincloss said. “It is a dream site for a homeless shelter. For a property of that size, in terms of square footage and acreage, there’s nothing like it in the county as far as I know of. It really checks so many boxes. It is just an amazing opportunity.”
Santa Barbara Councilman Oscar Gutierrez and Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez were among those who toured the facility last Friday, at Berti’s invitation.
“I am super excited. I am not trying to get my hopes up,” Oscar Gutierrez said. “It is a lot of money. There are a lot of variables.”
He said the City Council, City Administrator Rebecca Bjork and Assistant City Administrator Rene Eyerly plan to tour the facility next week to look at its viability.
Oscar Gutierrez said that among the questions he has is how to get people to the site, how to secure funding and how to maintain funding to keep it going.
“I am hoping my colleagues can try to come up with a plan to make it work,” Oscar Gutierrez said.
Jaeger said that every day he walks downtown by a homeless man named Ed, who lives under a blanket, with very little clothes.
“What if we could have a wonderful place for these people to go?” Jaeger said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.